On Thursday night, Ben Folds stood on top of his piano to direct a fire-capacity crowd in Lasell Gymnasium in a perfect three-part harmony. It was the crowning moment of Folds’ solo set, and arguably one of the best concerts held on campus in recent memory.
The evening began with Duncan Sheik, best known for his 1996 hit single “Barely Breathing.” Sheik, performing on guitar with an older fellow guitarist, performed a set that was refreshingly different from his poppy sleeper hit that everyone was familiar with. Though he gave a solid performance of many of his new original songs, his best piece was by far the cover of “Fake Plastic Trees,” originally by Radiohead. Performing it live on just two guitars gave it a refreshingly raw feel to the song, lending a very un-pop rock song a pop-y feel.
Having played at the College with his band in the spring of 1999, Folds returned to campus as a soloist. His set was filled with the staple songs from the era of Ben Folds Five (BFF), his now-defunct collaborative effort. Raucous renditions of classics like “Philosophy” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” blew away weaker covers of songs like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” In “Philosophy,” Folds showed his mastery of the piano in a lingering solo laced with hints of Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” Strangely enough, in speaking with Folds after the concert, he admitted that he wasn’t really originally a pianist and was trained as a percussionist â€“ a skill he shows off on his 2001 solo debut Rockin’ The Suburbs.
In addition to the songs originally released with BFF, his set was graced with a wide selection of works from his solo material. “Zak and Sara” and a subdued rendition of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” showed that the gawky piano-rocker was every bit as talented a musician without a backing band.
Halfway through the evening, Folds experimented with a new approach of playing covers, perhaps in an effort to reach out to the concert-goers who were chattering in the back of the room. To some extent, it worked, as the audience energy hit its first peak during the original songs following a rolling rendition of Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes.”
Throughout the set, Folds balanced material from his solo career with the music that launched him to his success with BFF. A heartfelt and touching “The Luckiest” captured the audience with a mellow vibe which was somewhat distracted by students talking loudly in the back of the gym.
Folds’ characteristic flair for improvisation represented when he began toying with the Steinway on the stage. Explaining that during his concert at Brandeis University the night before, he had broken his piano and taught himself a new trick by stopping the percussion of the piano strings with the palm of his hand, he spun out a new song, entitled “You Da Man” after an audience member’s appreciative contribution.
As an encore, a minor key version of “Song for the Dumped” took a while for those in attendance to catch on to, but in the end, was a successfully humorous remix of a BFF favorite. It made it clear that the demise of his former band was not something he looked back upon with negative feelings, and that a nostalgia behind the performance of the older songs was very much an underlying theme throughout the concert.
However, nothing in the performance could hold a candle to the set-closing “Not the Same.” Introduced as the song about his friend who climbed a tree while tripping on acid and came back down a born-again Christian, it was an amazing testament towards Folds’ mastery of showmanship. He began with a quick group tutorial in three-part harmony, and the audience-turned-chorus resonated with astonishingly perfect chords when cued by Folds.
The experience culminated with Folds standing atop his piano, triumphantly directing the audience like a choir director. It was definitely a huge step forward from chanting “I’m down with O.P.P.” along with Naughty by Nature at last year’s Homecoming concert.
Talking after the show, Folds mentioned how he felt that a live show was an “organic experience.” Without the backing of a band, the interaction between artist and audience is indeed closer and more intimate. The backing instruments stripped away, a solo performance leaves only the performer and his song. And the end result? A concert where artist, song and audience share one united experience.
Did it have the smooth rhymes of the Jurassic 5 concert? Did it have the virtuosic flair of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones? No. But with Folds, a sense of intimacy more commonly found in concerts in tiny clubs and bars was established with a thousand individuals in one of the largest concerts held on the campus in years.
Some concert-goers felt that the solo piano was too simple and melancholic for the festive tone set by anticipating Homecoming Weekend, and there were fans who were overwhelmingly disappointed by not hearing BFF’s first hit single “Brick.” However, playing solo and avoiding his most well-known song reflects a move to a new stage of Folds’ career where he needs neither a backing band nor the songs that launched his commercial success.
His anecdotal songs are as personal and reaching as on any album recorded by BFF, and the former front-man’s solid performance reaffirms that he is an artist who will be around for awhile.